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What Can James Baldwin Teach Us About Programming?

Well, I had said I was going to be a writer, God, Satan, and Mississippi notwithstanding, and that color didn't matter, and that I was going to be free. And, here I was, left with only myself to deal with. It was entirely up to me.

-James Baldwin

I've loved this quote for a long time. For years now, I've found inspiration in it. It's given me the confidence, at times, to let its resounding sentiment guide my life. The shear gall of the man, or any person, who faced a system as all encompassing as Jim Crow segregation — who's grandparents, and their parents before them, had been enslaved on the very ground he now walked — and decided, in a moment, that it would not define him. That he would not be limited by all that came before him, or by all that stands ahead of him now. To overcome the circumstance, no matter the cost, because, that is what it meant to be free. But until now, I'd never truly heard this quote.

I'm a budding developer, currently attending my second coding boot-camp at General Assembly (GA). I'm not rich, and as deserving as some may be (GA in particular), I don't love making twenty-thousand dollar contributions to coding boots-camps only to spend 8 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week (that first boot-camp was rough), wracking my brain as I squeeze several years of learning into just a few months. So, let me tell you why this is my second shot at a coding program. Many of you already know the culprit.


I know, we're all tired of hearing it. It seems like anywhere you look in tech, it's imposter syndrome this, and imposter syndrome that. But let's be for real. What really is imposter syndrome? Sure, we all doubt ourselves, but humans are naturally insecure. We want to be included. We want the necessary knowledge to be a part of the group, particularly in programming, where, everywhere, we see the developers who have been our Northern Stars — those that make content for learners and are invited to speak at conferences, who got you to write your first "hello world" and code your own chatbot. Not since the discovery of diamond have we seen so many sparkling things. But those insecurities and doubts are not imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is much further reaching, and far more devastating than a voice in the back of your head asking if you're all that you've hyped yourself up to be. Imposter syndrome is believing that, in that field of diamonds, you're just a lump of coal.

You might be wondering how that's different from everything I named before. Isn't the nagging voice, the one telling you you're not ready for the next step, or even that next line of code, only a symptom of imposter syndrome? Don't developers, those who are diamonds, face every challenge with ease and grace? Is struggle not something they stand before with poise and confidence, and every adjective which projects fortitude and success? Well, yes. That voice can be imposter syndrome. Some developers do think they're model T-5000 terminators of Computer Science and software development (surprised?). Other developers are just, truly, great. But being intimidated by their success, or knowing you still have room for learning, does not make you a lump of coal. That makes you both human and a developer — a rare site these days. You become a lump of coal the moment you let those fears and insecurities determine your outcome.

This is exactly what I did, or rather, what I became, when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges during my first coding boot-camp — a lump of coal. Things hadn't gone the way I'd intended. The pandemic arrived when I was only one week into the program, and suddenly, I found myself learning from home. The instructors were impatient when answering my questions. The dogs barked during zoom meetings, my child barged in the room every 4 minutes, the groceries had to be got and a thousand other challenges piled up before me — a mountain higher than any I'd ever seen. I gave up. I decided that I could not do it. I could not become a developer. And it is precisely at this moment, that James Baldwin, who would pass only one year after IBM released their first laptop, can teach us something about being a developer.

The truth is, God, Satan, and Mississippi notwithstanding, you can be a developer. Likely, you already are. You're solving problems. You're learning. You're growing. You're creating new things, and making new connections that, previously, you would have never thought possible. You probably wouldn't be reading this now if you weren't already a developer. Unless, of course, you're my beautiful, loving, supporting wife. Hi, love. But if you're not, then you are a developer. You are a programmer. You can and will do what it takes to get past this next obstacle. When you fall, or when your code breaks, you will get back up and put your code together again. Go full Humpty Dumpty, and do it because that's what we do. We're developers. We make sh*t work.

And so, to answer my question, you will not be finding python tutorials on YouTube presented by James Baldwin. However, if you pay close attention to his words, and close attention to your mind, you will learn a lot about the programmer. Here you are, left with only yourself to deal with. It is entirely up to you.

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